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Amazing metacognitive manifesto on learning physics

August 2, 2013

A couple of weeks ago I came across this incredible Quora post by physics grad student Mark Eichenlaub in response to the question: Do grad students remember everything they were taught in college all the time?

The post is nearly 10,000 words long, references Randy Knight, Carol Dweck, Cal Newport, Richard Feynman and Derek Muller (aka Veritasium), and a bibliography. It’s really a tour de force.

Here are some quotes and takeaways:

A student who memorizes the entire physics curriculum is no more a physicist than one who memorizes the dictionary is a writer. Studying physics is about building skills, specifically the skills of modeling novel situations and solving difficult problems. The results in your textbook are just the raw material. You’re a builder. Don’t spend all your time collecting more materials. Collect a few, then build things. Here’s how.

Imagine an athlete trying to play soccer, but just yesterday they learned about things like “running” and “kicking”. They’d be so distracted by making sure they moved their legs in the right order that they’d have no concept of making a feint, much less things like how the movement pattern of their midfielder was opening a hole in the opponent’s defense. The result is that the player does poorly and the coach gets frustrated.

Much of a technical education works this way. You are trying to understand continuum mechanics when Newton’s Laws are still not cemented in your mind, or quantum mechanics when you still haven’t grasped linear algebra. Inevitably, you’ll need to learn subjects more than once – the first time to grapple with the details, the second to see through to what’s going on beyond.

Experts see the cathedral first, then the bricks. Novices grab desperately at every brick in sight and hope one of them is worth at least partial credit.

Eichenlaub also points out that most of this process of chunking that experts do is subconscious. These chunks develop without our awareness, and this makes it harder for experts to communicate with beginners:

Lesswrong user Yvain comments on the essay Being a teacher

I used to teach English as a second language. It was a mind trip.
I remember one of my students saying something like “I saw a brown big spider”. I responded “No, it should be ‘big brown spider’”. He asked why. Not only did I not know the rule involved, I had never even imagined that anyone would ever say it the other way until that moment.

Such experiences were pretty much daily occurrences.

In other words, the chunkiest cognitive process we have – language – develops largely without our awareness. (In retelling this story, I’ve met a surprising number of people who actually did know about adjective order in English, but most of them either learned English as a second language or had studied it in psychology or linguistics course.)

This makes it incredibly difficult for physics teachers or textbook writers to communicate with beginners. It’s inevitable that beginners will say that a certain lecturer or book just doesn’t explain it clearly enough, or needs to give more examples. Meanwhile, the lecturer has no idea why what they said wasn’t already perfectly clear and thinks the example was completely explicit. Neither party can articulate the problem, the student because they can’t see the incorrect assumption they’re making, the professor because they don’t realize they’ve already made such an assumption.

Here’s the last line—which feels like it should go on my classroom wall:

Get confused. Solve problems. Repeat. The universe is waiting for you.

Reading this article also renews my interest in developing a metacogniative curriculum, this 10,000 word manifesto seems almost like it could be a textbook for such a curriculum, but I’m not exactly sure how I would parse it so that it could be digested by 10th graders. What do you think?

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. August 2, 2013 2:17 pm

    Would the digestion be just another unchunked exercise?

    I find it fascinating to try to figure out how students get their ideas (like the brown big spider). Understanding that is sometimes a whole lot more important than understanding why/that it should be a big brown spider.

  2. Brian permalink
    August 4, 2013 9:50 pm

    Great post. This puts into words quite well what we (physics teachers) feel intuitively. So physics is learned… eventually… with continual effort.

    An image of a crock pot just popped into my head — throw all ingredients (memorized physics concepts) in and the flavors blend (understanding develops) slowly over time.

    I’m sure this is the same conclusion for other subjects (as evidenced by the ESL teacher).

    Begs the question: even knowing this, can we adequately educate students within the traditional, education system framework (45min classes, 6 classes/day, students grouped by age, large student:teacher ratios,…)

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